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Racism at the beach: Why a recent slur struck a national nerve in South Africa

When Penny Sparrow left a racist Facebook message aimed at black New Year's Day beach revelers, the overwhelming national response was based on South Africa's peculiar relationship with a central symbol of inequality.

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    Beach goers celebrate New Year's Day at the ocean in Durban, South Africa, January 1, 2016.
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Only 20 miles separated the farm outside of Cape Town where Jerome September grew up in the 1980s and the nearby resort-studded coastline. 

The psychological distance, however, could well have been measured in light years. For one thing, the best beaches – whose powdery white sands and turquoise waves graced international travel magazines – were reserved for white people. Mr. September’s family was black. And even visits to the segregated beaches where they were allowed took months of planning ​by his parents – a farm laborer and a domestic worker – to save for transportation and arrange for a day off from work.

Yet for September, that isn't the part of the experience that has stayed with him. 

“What I remember most clearly about those days is that being at the beach felt like a great equalizer,” he says. “We were all standing in awe of the same ocean, sharing the same sand, and the reminders that my family was poor, that we were second class, sort of fell away.”

Indeed, 22 years after the end of apartheid, the public beaches here remain both an outsized symbol of nagging inequality – a luxury reserved for those rich in time and money – and a quiet way of transcending it, a place where the otherwise rigid social order of life in one of the world’s most unequal countries can, momentarily, come unhinged.

So when a white South African realtor named Penny Sparrow posted an outraged Facebook message earlier this week saying that blacks' presence on a Durban beach poisoned her New Year’s Day experience, and calling them “monkeys”, it quickly touched a raw nerve.  Within days, the post had gone viral, Ms. Sparrow had gone into hiding, and the ruling party had announced it would pursue a law prohibiting “the glorification of apartheid,” modeled on European prohibitions on denying the Holocaust.

"In the context of our painful past, racial bigotry and apartheid must be considered serious human rights violations that must be punishable by imprisonment,” the chief whip of the ruling African National Congress said in a statement. 

But if Sparrow’s statements were baldly racist, they were hardly singular, and many say the groundswell of anger they set off was at least in part due to the symbolic importance of the experience. 

“The psychic space that beaches occupy for both black and white South Africans is one of privilege,” says Sisonke Msimang, a social commentator and writer. “Beaches have always been coveted spaces in part because of the kind of luxury and escape and leisure time they symbolize. That’s why Penny Sparrow’s comments are so important – she’s questioning people’s right to access not just a public space, but a particularly privileged one.”   

Under apartheid, nearly all of the most central and desirable beaches ​were ​reserved for whites. Well into the 1980s, protesters who staged multiracial sit-ins on white beaches were driven away by teargas and snarling police dogs, and in 1987, President P.W. Botha ordered Allan Hendrickse, a mixed race member of his cabinet, to issue a humiliating public apology after he took a short swim on a “whites only” beach in the city of Port Elizabeth. 

Although beaches formally desegregated in 1990, access often remains informally restricted by the legacies of apartheid urban​ planning, which continue to confine many African, Indian, and coloured (mixed-race) South Africans to the fringes of coastal cities, far from the waterfront.

Still, on one day each year – New Year’s Day – even the country’s most elite public beaches briefly transform, their legions of surfers and sun-tanning tourists replaced by tens of thousands of revelers from nearby townships and farming communities. Many, like September’s family, choose to visit then because it is the only time of year they can both shoulder the costs and muster a day off. 

Even today, September says, memories of those New Year’s trips are among the happiest he has of a childhood punctuated by “daily reminders that I was considered subhuman.” Although he now works as an administrator at a university hundreds of miles from the coast, on the rare occasions when he visits the beach he says the feeling is the same as it always was. 

“I find it healing and reflective and humbling to be there, just this tiny thing against this mighty ocean,” he says. “It’s a great equalizer in that we’re all these tiny little people. The ocean doesn’t care whether you’re black or white or rich or poor.”

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